language: or, what are you talking about?

This morning crackheads broke into my car and stole my iPod. I told my hippie mechanic, whose birth name really truly is Jerry Lewis:

“Crackheads smashed my passenger window.”

“Friends of yours?”


“Then how do you know they were crackheads?”

Jerry obviously felt he had made a telling point, but I was underslept and annoyed and I meant to use the word crackheads in its derogatory sense. Even if my iPod wasn’t sold to buy crack, the thieves betrayed the same sorry failure to contribute to the common weal as if they did in fact piss their entire lives away for a twenty-minute high. They probably got $50 or so for the iPod and the other bits and pieces they lifted. It will cost me about $700 to replace it all. It occurs to me that my hippie mechanic is the one who stands to profit. Maybe that’s what he meant!

Language and its limitations, easily-overlooked differences in register and misunderstandings with their comic and tragic consequences are key themes of Imaginary Boyfriend Rory’s wonderful book (hardcover now on sale at Powells.) Rory is an able deployer of rhetoric himself. This passage, for example, defied my expectations, made me laugh and then forced me to think hard about my own ideals for a civil society. Not bad for three sentences:

On the edge of the floor experts on monetary policy, gender counsellors, engineers, colonels with bare midriffs thrust their hips out at the drunken audience from under the spinning disco ball. I wondered whether the waiters thought this enactment of every Islamist image of Western decadence was how we behaved every night. I enjoyed it very much.

One of my superstitions is that if gay men ever stop dancing, our cities will fall; so this really spoke to my heart. Part of Rory’s interest in rhetoric is in its failure modes:

Even in the stable context of our office, with good translators, it was often difficult for us to understand Iraqi guests and for them to understand us. Molly joked that the family pride, vendettas, genealogies and avarice of the sheikhs echoed my home life in the Scottish highlands and made them easy for me to communicate with, but the truth was that the most basic concepts, like “civil society” or “Sharia law,” meant very different things to each of us. What was a lived experience for one side was often an abstract concept, learned in a textbook, for the other. Too often, the sophisticated and controversial points that we imagined we were making were experienced by our listeners as sonorous platitudes.

When rhetoric is deployed in the service of hypocrisy, its failure is even more catastrophic. This, of course, is the story of the war. I am told there were people who believed in the imaginary WMDs, but I never met any of them. I am no apologist for the loathesome Baaths and their rape rooms, but the USA should never have invaded Iraq. This was obvious even at the time. In January and February of 2003, everyone I knew was marching in the streets, trying to prevent the invasion. We failed. We should have tried harder. The real question was how much we would value the lives of people we had never met. The answer was that we could never value them enough. Here is Rory defending the Coalition’s failure to protect Iraqi property.

“Governor, maybe it is better that a little computing equipment gets stolen than that more people get killed.”

And he said: “What are you talking about? Would you let the mob go stampeding into your office and loot your computer equipment?” We had no answer. Of course, we would have shot anyone who tried to break into our compound. The governor left that meeting certain that we were not prepared to give him the level of protection we gave ourselves. And from then onwards almost any hope of cooperation was lost.

All animals are equal, but… Can the West and the rest of the world ever find a common language? Esperanto, house music, the high-realist novel? The Magic 8-ball says: Outlook not so good.

Back at the office, Barbara sacked the translator because of the argument over the cigarettes. He left shouting, “We are coming for you. We will not rest until you are driven from this province screaming.” I walked with him to the door and there he stopped, took my hand, and said, “Rory, you must study E. M. Forster. It is the only way to understand our cultures. ‘Only connect.'” He walked out onto the street, turned, and shouted again: “Only connect.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

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